On tour with...
Pixie Saytar & The Sunshine Three
On Tour with Pixie Saytar and the Sunshine Three in the USA. Notes from a small DIY tour of a large country in a time of anomie from the man who put the sunshine in The Sunshine Three - Bernard Keenan. Part One...
Thursday 30th August 2007, New York, New York
It was about halfway through the Lincoln tunnel that it began to feel real. Riding high in a huge Ford E-150 van through the busiest tunnel in the world toward Manhattan's 30th street and 8th Avenue, I let out a nervous laugh and tried to keep as close as possible to the luxury coach speeding along in front of us. The reflected noise of hundreds of cars combined with the tunnel's air conditioners to create a high-pitched whine. The flow of traffic sucked us along and spat us out into the gridlocked streets. Back in New York.
We were picking up Ciaran 'Deadmeat' Hughes, just off the plane from Belfast, and starting the tour. Pixie Saytar and the other two members of her band - myself and Ricki O'Rawe - had landed a six days earlier, and spent the last week of August 2007 between New York and Pennsylvania, where we'd hired the van and borrowed whatever equipment we hadn't been able to fly with.
The tour was supposed to start that night in Syracuse at a gig with the American riot-folk band Ghost Mice, but by the time Ciaran landed we weren't going to be able to make the drive. Another night in New York? Too bad...
Friday 31st August, Boston, Massachusettes
The next day we left for Boston. It's a five hour drive north from New York and, because it was Labour Day weekend, the highways were packed. Between dodging massive trucks and a near collision with a New York State Trooper, you could say the first drive was tricky.
We arrived at the venue in the Boston suburd of Allston as the sun was setting. The gig was in a vegan pizzeria, and although you may not think that pizza is the most obvious choice of food when opening a vegan restaurant, it was pretty good food. It also gives you some idea of the type of area we were in - close to both Boston University and Harvard, we were in the heart of liberal Massachusettes.
With space at a premium we set up a stripped down drum kit and one PA speaker. The kids who put the show on usually play acoustically there every Friday. It's a social fixture for the local punk rock anarchists- white, educated suburban kids who are determined to instigate revolution by, amongst other things, singing sociology essays over three chords and riding bikes.
As cynical as I was to begin with, our host for the night was Evan, who has toured extensively in the US and Europe with only a bus pass and his guitar, relying on friends and fellow punks and activists in different towns to help get by. It made me think of the huge van outside and feel a strange sensation of guilty decadence.
Later on in his house, he showed us how he and his friends were using the spare room in their house to set up a basic medical clinic for local people, because of the crippling cost of medical insurance in the US. As Evan pointed out, a lot of the things people see a GP for aren't really demanding of their full medical school training, so why not learn the simple stuff for yourself?
We left Boston the next day feeling inspired by the attitudes there, with $170 between merchandise sold and a whip-around of the audience (which included a generous cheque for 'one trillion dollars'), and I wondered when exactly my own sense of optimism and motivation had vanished into a misty postmodern apathyï¿½ ah who cares?
Sunday 2nd September, New York, New York
After another night off in New York, spent watching the incredible Oneida play their 10th anniversary show ourside the PS1 gallery, we rolled up at the Sidewalk café - home of anti-folk - to play our first and only New York gig. The thing about the Sidewalk that makes it different from other famed New York venues is that anyone can get a gig there, because that's what it's famous for. Literally anyone. And so the crowd is never likely to be much bigger than your fans who come out specifically to see you, plus the other performers, and anyone they can attract. On a Sunday night, that doesn't add up to a lot of people.
Monday 3rd September, Trenton, New Jersey
After a long Labour Day in NYC (the place is eeriely quiet by New York standards) we left the city at nightfall for the ninety-minute drive down the NJ Turnpike to Trenton. The gig is in the basement of an old saloon style bar. Chris, who runs the bar and rents an apartment above it, has decided to open the place especially for us to play. We arrive around 9.30pm and it's locked up and dark, but Chris emerges from the basement and shows us around. There are bullet holes in the glass upstairs where a crack addict was recently mown down, and a Taser weapon stashed behind the bar. As Chris passes the time before his buddies arrive with the story of how he was once held prisoner in his apartment by a muscle-bound madman, Ciaran and Ricki try to lighten the mood with a few jokes. Chris doesn't really laugh much though.
Eventually his pals show up and we have our audience. As friendly as everyone seems, we decline the offer of a place to stay for the night and leave the dark streets of Trenton as quickly as possible, running a red light in the dash to the Interstate. It's funny how the menace of a place seems to be inversely proportionate to the number of people you see there. After a two hour drive we arrive at Ciaran's brother's home outside Philly, where we spend the next night as well, thanks to cancellation in Philly. The next day we find out that Baltimore has also been pulled, but we visit there anyway to stay with an old friend of Pixie's. We don't get paid for it, but we still play a few tunes with her and some friends.
Thursday 6th September, Washington, D.C
Our gig in Washington was strange. Booked at the Red and Black by the inhouse promoter, we had to check with the headline band if we could play. A guy called Jonny Cohen got in touch with Pixie soon after to say yes, absolutely, he loves her stuff. Soon after we arrive at the venue, Jonny introduces himself. He's a bit awkward and extremely odd. Himself and the band were once signed to Teenbeat records and had a bit of a cult following. These days Jonny is an actor, but they've decided to give the band another go. First up is Deadbeat. A guy on guitar and a girl on a child's drumkit, they sing loosely in time and tune about summer days and love songs. So far, so K Records. They'd sit perfectly in your collection between Beat Happening and the Velvet Underground, and are utterly charming. A few more people filter in to watch us play, and then comes Jonny. In between bands we learn that Jonny is something of an outsider musician, in the Daniel Johnston sense. Having spent some time in hospital he emerged with a catalogue of songs in his head. He hummed them to his old friends who could play rock 'n' roll, and so was born one of the strangest and most beguiling bands I've ever seen. Over a new-wave backbeat Jonny shuffles from side to side, singing and shouting his funny, weird lyrics.
We stay with an old friend of mine from the Washington punk rock scene and get a parking ticket the following morning. Ricki takes the wheel and we drive up towards the Capitol, across the Potomac river, past the Pentagon, into Virginia, and the South.
Read part two of the tour diary...